The QF-4 represents a full-size unmanned target drone version of the successful Cold War-era F-4 Phantom II aircraft. QF-4's are operated by the 82nd Aerial Targets Squadron (itself under the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group of the 53rd Wing of Elgin AFB, Florida) out of Tyndall Air Force Base. Drones are utilized for a variety of reasons with these QF-4's mounting various countermeasures to research a bevy of weapons and tactical maneuvers.
The QF-4 drone was put into operational service in 1997 as converted F-4 Phantom II models. It is a remote-controlled aerial target that has the benefit of being reusable. Remote controlling is handled by either a pilot at a nearby ground control station or can be fully under computer control via the Gulf Range Drone Control System. Either way, a chase plan is utilized during the exercises as a precaution. Other precautionary measures include the use of internally-held explosives aboard the QF-4. Should the system become unstable or unresponsive, ground forces have the ability to directly destroy the runaway unit if need be. Exercises are only accomplished over water sources deemed available to drone programs in the United States.
QF-4 drones are essentially full-working modified models of their F-4 forefathers. Modifications of the original McDonnell aircraft were handled by BAE Systems at the cost of $2.6 million per system conversion. The airframe has retained all visible similarities to the former and internal systems such as the General Electric turbojet engines (with reheat capability) are all accounted for. Performance specs include a top speed of Mach 2, a range of 1,300 miles and a service ceiling of 60,000 feet.
The QF-4 succeeded the QF-106 (based on USAF F-106 aircraft) in the USAF drone inventory. Some 86 total QF-4 drones were known to be in service as of this writing (2008). 250 total QF-4 target drones were registered as shot down as of 2013.
The QF-4 line has since been succeeded by the QF-16 which is a target drone variant of the popular and successful Lockheed Martin / General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon (2015). Formal replacement of QF-4 drones is expected during 2015.
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